Facebook Twitter

WWII internment recalled at Wyoming site

10,700 Japanese were held; learning center is planned

SHARE WWII internment recalled at Wyoming site
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta pauses in front of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center honor roll during his June 25 visit. Mineta was 12 when he and his family were interned at the Heart Mountain camp.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta pauses in front of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center honor roll during his June 25 visit. Mineta was 12 when he and his family were interned at the Heart Mountain camp.

Justin Lessman, Associated Press

POWELL, Wyo. — Most of the buildings are gone. Not that there was much to them, anyway. Many were little more than tarpaper shacks when the first internees arrived at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a World War II internment camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry.

The desolate landscape that so harshly greeted new arrivals in the summer of 1942 looks much the way it did then, with a little more grass maybe, and a little less sagebrush.

But the memories remain, preserved both by locals and by internees determined never to let this happen again on American soil.

A new interpretive walking trail on this hardscrabble plateau gives visitors a glimpse into life at Heart Mountain, where more than 10,700 internees were forced to live during the war. They were among some 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans forcibly removed from Washington state, Oregon, California and western Arizona and sent to camps in the nation's interior.

So many were sent to Heart Mountain that the camp became Wyoming's third-largest city at the time.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta was 12 years old when he and his family were sent to Heart Mountain. At a ceremony earlier this summer dedicating the interpretive walk, Mineta said Heart Mountain showed that despite their experiences, the internees emerged "without any rancor or bitterness. They came out with a determination that this would never happen again."

The interpretive walk consists of a paved loop running about 1,000 feet, with an introductory kiosk and eight information stations that describe different aspects of life at the camp, from the injustices to the successes.

For example, white nurses working at Heart Mountain were paid $150 per month, while Japanese-American nurses were paid $16 per month. Yet the internees managed to create a functioning community with self-government, farming, a school, Boy Scout troops and even a newspaper.

Bill Hosokawa, a newspaperman whose long career has included stints at The Des Moines Register, The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, edited the camp newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel.

"A lot of people don't even know there was an evacuation," said Hosokawa, 90, of Denver, who helped create the interpretive trail. "You tell them you were in an American prison camp even though you're an American citizen, and they said that's a bunch of bull."

When he arrived at Heart Mountain, he recalled, "my first impression was, 'What a devastated place.' Heat, dust, confusion, more dust. Our lives were anything but easy."

Charles Kishimoto, 89, of San Dimas, Calif., wasn't at Heart Mountain long before he was hired to work on local farms. Within a year, he had been allowed to leave Heart Mountain to work in Nebraska.

"Most of the local people who did farm work, their sons and daughters were in the service," Kishimoto said. "Knowing how to run a tractor, that's what they used me for. That's what got me out."

"They literally saved the beet harvest in '42 and '43, because so many of the men were away for the war," said Patricia Wolfe, treasurer of the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation. "They literally saved the farms."

It wasn't long before the internees were farming, themselves — growing not just local crops but traditional Japanese produce like daikon, a giant radish, and nappa, a type of cabbage.

The camp had its own school system and an internal governance that gave the internees some control over their lives. Hundreds of internees enlisted in the U.S. armed forces, including Ted Fujioka, the first student body president at the camp's high school, who was killed in France.

All that despite the barbed wire, the armed guards.

"What moved me about my experience here was that, in the eyes of the government, I was not a native-born American citizen — I was an enemy alien," Hosokawa said. "Why? Because my parents were born in Japan, a country with which we were at war."

It's that conflict — the question of how citizens treat each other in times of crisis — that the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation wants to tackle in its next project, an interpretive learning center on the site of the camp's former military police compound.

Dave Reetz, president of the foundation, said he hoped to break ground on the $7 million center next year, and hoped to open the center in 2007.

"We want exhibits that challenge our thinking, that make us think about the deeper issues about the internment. There are constitutional issues — What is the law? What did the law say? What were the civil liberties involved here? We're going to basically focus on the overarching issues."

Reetz said it's important that the center is finished while former internees are still around to pass along their stories.

"The Nisei" — second-generation Japanese, the children of immigrants — "are in their 70s and 80s, and they really want to see something done here," he said. "They really want to have a place that they can bring their children and grandchildren."

But the site may also help inspire others. "The true message," said Mineta, "is that any community can make the American dream theirs, no matter how others try to deny it."